Finding Promise in Sustainability 2.0

It's hard to imagine cosmopolitan secular liberals, heartland Christian conservatives, and tree-hugging greens having much of anything in common. Yet increasingly they're all enthusiastic participants in what might be called the "quality of life" movement. When such normally opposing cultures in America have something new and important in common—like the thirst for a better way of life (as distinct from a higher standard of living, which implies only more money)—it signals a sea change. Marketers can either connect with this new movement or be surprised by it.

The "quality of life" movement's consumer hallmarks:

Consumer Detox: conspicuous consumption giving way to more conscious buying;

Everyday Activism: citizens routinely expecting more upfront information on their brands and the values of the companies behind them;

Buying Out: cynicism, if not hostility, toward marketing in general;

Natural, Local, and Ethical: the rapid growth of farmers' markets, natural foods, and fair-trade awareness.

In part, this quest for quality of life is based on the desire for authenticity. As pollster John Zogby observes in his landmark book, The Way We'll Be, "If there is one thing that reverberates across all our surveys, it's the demand after so many years of falsity—in products, claims, and promises—that things finally get back to being honest and actual."

But it doesn't matter what you call this new movement, its power to shift the culture is clear. One day drinking bottled water is cool. The next day it's toxic. One day you're talking about having your kid's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese (CEC). The next day you're reading an article that says macaroni and cheese is as unhealthy as cigarettes.

If as a marketer you connect with the underlying values of this changeover, it all makes sense. If you don't, you're constantly surprised. The bigger the company, the more the surprises.

Meeting a New Standard Established brands with big footprints are scrambling to stay relevant in the midst of this shift in cultural priorities. The term "greenwashing" has arisen to describe their behavior when they react merely with manipulative and disingenuous responses. These companies have a tendency to reach people by means of fear and anger rather than by engaging their desire for personal and community happiness—which is the hallmark of this emerging trend. At the same time, green advocates often harbor an instinctual distrust of large companies.

Customers don't just want what they buy to be good for the planet anymore. They want it to be good for the people, too. Increasingly customers will detect when a PR-oriented corporate sustainability program is false (let's call it Sustainability 1.0). They can recognize that there are lots of products and processes in the world that could be made benignly but still do no good. To wit, beverage companies may be using less plastic in their bottles, but their corporate strategy still depends on already obese kids drinking more sugar water.

The opportunity is ripe for established companies with huge distribution and brand presence to employ the same kind of ingenuity they used in creating their high-performance, affordable, ubiquitous products to create products and services that advance the lives of those participating in the new movement. Let's call it Sustainability 2.0. This is the chance to attract customers who aren't just interested in products that are less harmful (organic tobacco). They want products that are more beneficial (carrot juice in compostable containers).

Companies that demonstrate leadership in this era will not just inquire about the quantity of resources they use but will seek to learn whether what they offer actually enhances the lives of their customers and their local and planetary communities. Products and services designed to deliver on this new standard are the ones that will become the commercial icons of tomorrow.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.